“One City, 50 Wards: Does the City That Works Actually Work?“ a joint series from Crain’s Chicago Business and the University of Chicago Center for Effective Government, explores the connections between how Chicago’s city government is designed, how it functions, and how it performs.
By: Steve Hendershot
Chicago is supposed to have a City Council with the strength and independence to check the mayor’s power, but also one that’s attuned and responsive to the concerns of its citizens.
In fact, the council already has the authority to chart the city’s course and the structure to facilitate more neighborhood-level engagement than any other big U.S. city — each council member represents 53,931 residents, a dramatically smaller ratio than exists in any other of America’s 10 largest cities.
Yet in practice, Chicago’s mayors wield astounding power, both in absolute terms and relative to the way authority is theoretically allocated by the city’s municipal code and state law. Rather than contributing meaningful block-level insights to citywide policy discussions, Chicago's legislators historically have instead focused on tending to ward services while deferring to the mayor on larger issues.
In a vacuum, you can argue it’s a workable system. But in reality, the city has a century-long reputation as a corruption hotbed. It’s weighed down by a financial mess tied to underfunded pensions that’s both more severe than most other cities’ pension woes and that stems from ill-advised budgets that breezed through an acquiescent council. And Chicago now contends with surging crime and violence.
In several ways, Chicago’s government is different from that of most peer cities. And there’s plenty of evidence that our particular form of “different” doesn’t translate to “better.”
What’s keeping the council from exercising its intended powers or better harnessing the insights derived from its hyperlocal reach?
One reason is that a host of customs and unwritten rules tilt the balance of power away from the council and toward the mayor. It’s not written anywhere that the mayor has the power to name the council’s committee chairs, for example, yet that how the city’s government has long functioned.
Control over the coveted posts — which come with additional funds, staffing and clout — expands the mayor’s influence over a supposedly coequal branch of city government. The tradition continued in May when the city’s new mayor, Brandon Johnson, installed allies at the head of key committees, quelling a brief push for greater council independence.
The other key reason is that Chicago’s council members are resource-starved. There are a lot of them, but most operate with small staffs and limited budgets that make it hard to tend to ward-level issues while also wading meaningfully into citywide policy. Thus, even those who are inclined to flesh out the council’s legislative role are challenged to do so.
But there is a growing recognition among city leaders that some changes are in order.
“I think a lot of Chicagoans understand that the status quo is broken, that this byzantine system that we have is not working for a city of our size and global stature,” 35th Ward Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa said in an interview during the mayoral election campaign. “I’m hopeful that with the new council, we can have an ideologically diverse coalition of alderpersons who are interested in having a stronger City Council that's more focused on legislating and leading.”
Still, Ramirez-Rosa has since accepted appointment as Johnson’s council floor leader and chair of the powerful Zoning Committee.
What specific reforms could set up the council — and city — for greater success? That’s the question that has driven this series, which has examined Chicago’s challenges and practices and compared them to those of peer cities. If city leaders are interested in reform, here are the top ideas to consider:
ADOPT A CITY CHARTER
A city charter is a legal document that outlines the framework and structure of a local government, much like a constitution at the state or national level.
Chicago doesn’t have one.
That’s a big deal for several reasons. First, Chicago and Indianapolis are the only top-25 U.S. cities without a charter, although Indiana state law provides Indianapolis with charter-level direction. That means Chicago is alone among big cities in eschewing a cornerstone tool for providing legal oversight, one that would add stability, consistency and accountability to the city’s actions.
“Chicagoans don't know the government is theirs. Why? There isn't a governing document, a constitution, that tells them it's theirs,” says Joe Ferguson, former Chicago inspector general and leader of a charter-advocacy group called (re)Chicago.
Second, the lack of a charter creates a directionless void in which quirky customs and practices take hold because, well, there’s nothing that says they can’t. It also means that mayors can often act with impetuous impunity, such as 20 years ago when former Mayor Richard M. Daley ordered city workers to destroy Chicago’s downtown airport in the middle of the night. In contrast, a charter could outline a process for evaluating proposals to decommission a city service, and a mayor could be sued for violating it.
Third, a charter could safeguard other potential reforms. A charter is “a best practice for an open and transparent government,” says Charles Modica, the city of San Diego’s independent budget analyst. “There's a saying that, ‘Your past practice becomes your policy,’ and it’s largely true. But if your past practice is just a nebulous thing that exists outside of a charter, then where is the public supposed to go to improve on it?”
There’s a different conversation to be had about what should be included within a Chicago city charter. One focus could be on eliminating the unwritten rules that enhance the mayor’s power, including the ability to name council committee chairs. Another issue is the close alignment of the city’s corporation counsel — its top lawyer — with the mayor’s office rather than jointly representing the mayor and City Council.
MAKE A CHOICE: FEWER WARDS OR MORE ALDERMANIC RESOURCES
With one alderperson for every 53,931 citizens, Chicago has, by far, the lowest ratio of council members per citizen of any of America’s top 10 cities. In New York, there’s a council member for every 166,030 citizens; in Los Angeles, it’s one for every 256,620 citizens.
Chicago’s outlier status in this regard isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because it gives the city the potential to incorporate hyperlocal input and insight into policy and decision-making.
The problem is that it’s really expensive to staff 50 ward offices adequately. In most wards the aldermanic staff is hard-pressed just to deal with requests for zoning changes and residents’ service requests, much less prepare the member for complex legislative debates on the council floor. That partly explains Chicago’s tradition of rubber-stamp votes on even crucial bills such as the budget.
“Talk to every single one of my former colleagues and they'll say that their office was either always underwater or on the verge of being underwater,” says Ameya Pawar, who served two terms as the 47th Ward alderperson from 2011-19.
One way to ensure that council members have the resources to participate meaningfully in the legislative process is to shrink the size of the council and beef up staff sizes — even though that would diminish hyperlocal representation.
There’s no consensus, however, on the best form for a city council to take. Among the country’s 25 largest cities, 21 have councils with fewer than 20 members, but the bodies in New York and Nashville are similar in size to Chicago’s. And while all council members in many cities represent particular communities, some cities such as Boston and Washington also include at-large members.
Another path for Chicago to consider if it wants to sustain its supersize council is to provide centralized resources that can bear some of the burden of legislative analysis without having to add teams of legislative specialists to all 50 ward staffs.
In fact, the council made a move in that direction when it created the City Council Office of Financial Analysis, or COFA, in 2013.
BEEF UP COFA
Every alderperson knows that the mayor’s annual spending plan is worthy of a deep dive — especially in Chicago, where pension contributions consume more than 20% of the budget each year.
But not all council members are able to devote the time needed to do so, at least by themselves. Ramirez-Rosa, for example, said he turned to nonprofits and unions to help assess the contents of budget proposals from former Mayor Lori Lightfoot.
Indeed, budget analysis is challenging work — not just for Chicago’s alderpersons, but for legislators and aides at every level of government. It’s why the federal government created the Congressional Budget Office in 1974 to lighten the load by providing nonpartisan, independent analysis. In the years since, several cities have adopted municipal versions of the CBO.
Chicago joined that movement by creating COFA in 2013, modeled on offices in peer cities San Diego and New York. The office promised to give council members new insight into the mayor’s proposed budget, enabling them to more effectively participate in a crucial annual debate and vote.
Instead, a decade later, COFA operates with a tiny staff — its website lists only two employees, not enough to meet its mandate. In San Diego, by contrast, the 11 people in the city’s Office of the Independent Budget Analyst work back-to-back 80-hour weeks every April once the mayor unveils an initial proposed budget, producing a 200-page report for council members in advance of the first public budget hearings in May.
Chicago is attempting to support resource-strapped council members with a centralized auxiliary office, but it is perhaps even more severely understaffed than the typical ward office.
And staff size isn’t the only problem: Chicago also begins public budget hearings just a couple of days after the release of the mayor’s budget proposal.
A high-functioning COFA could be a model for what Chicago’s council needs to legislate effectively and independently, while maintaining its current size and without swelling individual ward staffs with multiple legislative analysts. But without the time or resources needed to do its job well, COFA for now is mostly an unfulfilled promise.
HANDS OFF THE WARD MAPS
Who’s in charge of the once-a-decade process to redraw Chicago’s ward maps to ensure balanced electoral representation across the city?
The council members are.
It’s an arrangement that smacks of self-interest, especially when the final map from 2022 includes several examples of tortuous gerrymandering and numerous allegations of manipulating ward boundaries to suit the political interests of individual alderpersons. The 2022 map is less contiguous and includes substantially greater population imbalances than an alternative map created by an independent commission.
“No matter how far above board it might be conducted, the process still operates under that cloud of conflict of self-interest,” says Ferguson. “The end result is an outcome that benefits incumbents and leaves the public with less trust in the government and the government with less mantle of legitimacy.”
ADD AN OPERATIONAL EXPERT
Most American cities have either a mayor-council system of government like Chicago’s or a council-manager system in which an appointed city manager oversees the city’s day-to-day operations while leaving policy and legislative direction to an elected council and mayor.
Some big cities such as Phoenix, Dallas and San Antonio have city managers, but the mayor-council system is more prevalent in the largest U.S. cities. Yet many of those bigger cities could benefit from stronger operations — something Chicago leaders recognized generations ago when they inserted a law into the city’s municipal code mandating that a chief administrative officer be employed here.
That senior position has gone unfilled for decades. In a city with a charter, that could be cause for legal action; in Chicago, it’s just a curiosity — or was, until a March report in which the city’s inspector general, Deborah Witzburg, noted a pattern of poor coordination across city departments and suggested that the city could benefit from filling the protracted vacancy.
It’s worth investigating whether Chicago would benefit from a city manager. Short of that, when the mayor declines to fill a legally mandated senior operational position, it’s the City Council’s job to step in and ensure compliance. In a case where the position in question would directly address a glaring weakness within city government, there should be nothing standing in the council’s way.
It’s one thing to take pride in uniqueness when you’ve got a good thing going. But when your city is famous for corruption and mismanagement, and faces a host of pressing social and financial challenges — well, it’s probably time to consider more seriously and critically some of the ways that Chicago’s government works differently than that of nearly every peer city.
Chicago’s City Council already has the power to lead those efforts.